The rather strange and surprisingly vehement exchange of views that has erupted following the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, comments about “faith and the importance of Christianity in our country”, and those who wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph criticising his “characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country'”, made me explore some of the data that has been published on religious affiliation in the UK. I found the results somewhat surprising.
Cameron’s critics claim that “Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”. So, I turned to the England and Wales Census of 2011, and the reports on it from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for an update of the situation. The question on religion was the only voluntary question in the 2011 census, and yet interestingly only 7.2% chose not to answer it. This might be taken as suggesting that questions about religious affiliation are indeed something that do matter to the majority of people. As the ONS notes, though, defining religion or religious affiliation is indeed complex: “The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practise or belief. Religion is a many sided concept and there are other aspects of religion such as religious belief, religious practice or belonging which are not covered in this analysis”. The questions we ask undoubtedly influence the answers we get!
The responses to this question need to be treated with caution, but according to the census, the largest religion in the 2011 Census was Christianity with 33.2 million people, representing a substantial and surprising 59.3% of the population. Muslims were the next largest religious group, although with only 4.8% of the population. 25.1% of the population said that they had no religion. Of the other main religious groups: 817,000 people identified themselves as Hindu (1.5% of population); 423,000 people identified as Sikh (0.8% ); 263,000 people as Jewish (0.5% ) and 248,000 people as Buddhist (0.4% ).
According to these figures, I find it very hard to accept the views of Cameron’s critics at face value. As comparison with the 2001 census shows (see below), things are undoubtedly changing. There has certainly been an increase in those reporting “no religion”, from 14.8% of the population in 2001 to 25.1% in 2011. Likewise, there has been a substantial decline in those reporting to be Christian, from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011.
However, at least based on these figures, which unlike representative surveys include responses from almost all of the population, it would indeed seem to be the case that England and Wales are still largely a Christian country, and that Cameron’s critics are wrong in claiming that “most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”.
The problem with this debate is that the two sides seem to be focusing on rather different meanings and interpretations. Cameron’s critics have focused primarily on their argument that “most British people … do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government”, and they are critical of Cameron for introducing religion into politics; it would actually be quite interesting to see data on whether or not their claim is true. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to have been focusing both on his own faith, and on the heritage that Christianity has given to the country and its people. Again, I have to side with Cameron on the second of these. Whilst many other religions, and indeed non-religious perspectives, have shaped Britain in recent centuries, Christianity has been the major religious influence over the last 1500 years, and has had a very major impact on our society, culture, and indeed landscapes.
So, to me, this debate is largely a political one, and actually has rather little to do with religion or faith. In terms of religious beliefs and people practising religions, it is clear that there has indeed been a dramatic decline in Christianity, with a Tearfund report in 2007 indicating that only 15% go to a church at least once a month, and most of the evidence suggests that churchgoing has continued to decline since then. Accordingly, the moral values of the majority of people are indeed no longer based on a deep Christian faith – if ever they were – but this is something entirely different from saying that Britain is not a Christian country. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is some truth in Cameron’s assertion that Britain is more welcoming to people of other faiths than many other countries, “precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths”.
While on the evidence of the census, it is fascinating to note the substantial regional differences in religious affiliation, as the ONS map below indicates:
According to ONS figures, Christianity was the largest religion in all local authorities except Tower Hamlets where there were more people who identified as Muslim. The spatial distribution of people with different religious affiliations is itself fascinating: the local authorities with the next highest percentage of Muslims were Newham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford and Luton; Hindu representation was highest in Harrow, Brent, Leicester, Redbridge and Hounslow; Sikhs were most represented in Slough, Wolverhamtpon, Hounslow, Sandwell and Ealing; Buddhists in Rushmoor, Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hounslow; and Jews in Barnet, Hertsmere, Hackney, Bury and Camden. One of the riches of Britain is indeed our cultural diversity.